“I used to think it was a major tragedy if anyone went through life never having owned a canoe. Now I believe it’s only a minor tragedy.”
Bill Mason, Path of the Paddle (1984)
There are countless canoe manufacturers out there, each with an endless assortment of canoe models, as well as their own private classification system. On top of all that, opinionated canoeists that go out of their way to tell you you’ve bought the wrong boat the moment you bring it home.
Quite honestly, purchasing a canoe can be more stressful than buying a car. The perfect scenario would be to own a dozen models. Just as golfers choose the best club to get the ball to the green, a canoeist would choose the best boat for the water to be paddled each trip.
Of course, acquiring a dozen or so canoes can be a little expensive, and storing them in the backyard tends to be a problem. I have ten canoes and I’m quickly running out of room. So for most canoeists, your best bet is to buy the most versatile canoe afloat: the quintessential tripper.
The minimum length of a tripping canoe is 16 feet; maximum length is 18 feet. A 16-foot canoe gives adequate room for two people and gear for a week-long trip. However, if you’re heading out longer or you need room for a third party (a young child or pet dog), then lean towards the 17-foot or even 18-foot. The tradeoff for the extra length, of course, is how well your boat handles on the water. A 17-foot or 18-foot canoe will be much faster across the water but will be hard to control while shooting whitewater. The 16-foot boat will do much better in rapids and is far more maneuverable, especially while paddling down one of those constantly twisting streams, but will be slow across the lake and may even take on the odd rolling wave.
The shape of the canoe is a little more complicated. The width of an average tripper ranges from 30 to 36 inches. But that’s not what counts. First, consider the entry line of the canoe. If the bow has a narrow entry line, then it will cut through the water nicely. However, it will also allow more water to splash up and into the canoe. A canoe with a blunt entry line will make the boat slower but will also tend to ride up on the waves and keep the bow person dry. If you paddle big lakes, some rapids and you’re not too concerned about how fast you go, choose the blunt shape.
Another part of the canoe's shape is how its bottom sits in the water. The flatter the bottom, the more “initial stability” the boat will have, meaning it doesn’t feel like you’re going to flip over the moment you push off from shore. However, this shape reduces your speed considerably and can be quite dangerous when out in rough water (the waves tend to splash over the gunwale easily). If the bottom of the canoe is more rounded, it will feel a little tippy at first, but you will have a much easier time moving across the water and be much safer when the size of the waves build up. This is called “second stability.” So, unless you’re a complete novice and you’ll never take the canoe away from the cottage dock, then go for the rounder bottom.
“Tumblehome” is a traditional term meaning that the sides of the canoe are widest just above the waterline (basically, it bulges out wider than the gunwales). This reduces stability but lets you paddle in a straighter line without much effort.
Depth is also important. The bare minimum is 12 inches. But if you have a large load (up to three packs) and plan on paddling some whitewater or large lakes, then go for 13 or 14 inches.
Finally, look at the canoe’s rocker. It’s the term used when dealing with the flatness of the overall canoe, as viewed from along the keel line. Basically, a boat made for extreme whitewater has more of a banana shape to it. This enables it to turn on a dime. However, it’s almost impossible to go straight while paddling across calm water. A lake touring boat is close to dead straight from bow to stern. This allows it to track well. But don’t try to turn quickly into an eddy or you’ll end up missing the turn completely and end up going sideways down the river.
Check out my latest Happy Camper video to see my canoe collection: